DeFINitely Hot: More protection from unsustainable tourism practices for Hawaiian spinner dolphins


NOAA Fisheries recently announced two rules to advance the protection of Hawaiian spinner dolphins.

The first rule seeks to prohibit any approaches by water recreationists within 50 yards, coming into effect on 28 October 2021.

The second rule proposes a lid on interaction times in five specific areas that are used by spinners to rest – from 6 am to 3 pm and is open to comments from the public.


Why are those rules important?


Spinner dolphins are a highly frequented species in marine wildlife tourism, as their habitats are located in popular tourism destinations. In the early hours of the morning, spinner dolphins seek shallow, sheltered bays to rest which collides with the activities of water users such as swimmers, paddle boarders and dolphin watching enthusiasts who just started their day and see this as the perfect opportunity for their once-in-a-lifetime dolphin encounter.

Unfortunately, this desire is causing a lot of disruption in the dolphins’ lives. Spinners need the morning and early afternoon hours to recover from their nightly hunting routines in the open water. If they do not get the rest they need but instead have to be on the move to maintain their personal space, this can have detrimental impacts on the survival of the population. Stress has a big influence on our health and this is no different for dolphins. Dolphins express stress with long diving periods or body language such as tail slaps and sticking out their heads, so looking out for those warning signs is crucial if you want to act responsibly by terminating the encounter.

Just ask yourself, if you have to chase a dolphin to force it to interact with you, is this the encounter you have imagined?

Due to this, prohibiting interaction as a whole during times of the day that are critical for a species’ survival makes perfect sense. What Hawaiian spinner dolphins experience daily is shared with various other populations worldwide - Mauritius, Red Sea, you name it. The current protective measurements also open the gateway for a more informed discussion around the suitability of certain species, or populations, for tourism and recreational activities.

When people are asking me if I think spinner dolphins are safe species to interact with, I have to say “no, they aren’t”. At least not to the current, highly unsustainable extent. Because whole populations suffer under the pressure of people wanting their special moments with dolphins to tick off their perfect holiday bucket list. And something’s got to give.

It is the misfortune of spinner dolphins that their habitats are often popular holiday destinations for humans, so when we talk about management it means the management of humans, not dolphins.

The latest developments are a good reminder that the opportunity to interact with dolphins is a privilege. It is not essential to our lives. We can survive without it. However, resting up, having time to nurse their babies and socialising with one another, are vital activities for dolphins.

I am a strong advocate to spread the word that dolphin does not equal dolphin. It does matter what species you select for your personal dolphin encounter, especially when you want ethical and mindful wildlife encounters that are not compromising animal welfare.